January 18, 2005
His Excellency Ambassador Daniel Ayalon
Ambassador of Israel
3514 International Drive, N.W.
Washington, DC 20008
Recently, our hopes were renewed with the easing of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians and with signs of serious new efforts for peace. The U.S. Catholic Bishops have long supported a lasting and just peace, and we continue to pledge our support for every effort to make this possible.
We welcomed the Fundamental Agreement of 1993 between the Holy See and the State of Israel. However, we are deeply dismayed by the lack of progress, and we fear a lack of commitment, on the part of the Israeli government in negotiations with the Holy See over economic matters and other vital concerns to the Catholic Church and the wider Christian community in the Holy Land. Our concerns do not minimize the suffering of Jews and Muslims, but the issues between the government of Israel and the Holy See are also of great importance for religious liberty, not only for the Catholic Church but for the vitality of the all Christian communities within Israel. We urge the government of Israel to move this process forward expeditiously and effectively.
As you know, in 1993, the Holy See formally recognized and established diplomatic ties with the state of Israel (the Fundamental Agreement). This recognition proceeded even without a full resolution of outstanding major issues of concern to the Church, but with the promise by the Israeli government that these would be addressed through further negotiations. The agreed upon bases for these negotiations were the rights acquired by the Church prior to the UN mandate establishing the state of Israel. These rights were reaffirmed in the UN mandate establishing the state of Israel and in the Israeli declaration of independence.
Among the most critical issues facing the Church in Israel is its ability to maintain its rights to Church properties. Maintaining these properties is key to the mission and ministry of the Church in the Holy Land and thus its religious freedom. The exercise of arbitrary taxation policies by the government of Israel against Church properties and the governments denial of access to due process through Israeli courts to settle property disputes violates international law and the history of the prior rights of the Church.
While these negotiations have faltered previously, it was only with strong U.S. encouragement that they were revived in July 2004. Unfortunately, the revival of talks has been hesitant and fitful. In addition, we have been told the Israeli negotiators have not had full empowerment to conduct talks with the degree of seriousness they need. The failure to enact and implement the Fundamental Agreement, including the lack of progress in negotiations on economic matters, raises serious questions about the basic commitments made by the Israeli government.
We urge the government of Israel to renew its negotiations with the Holy See without further delays. With our long ties to the Jewish people and with an abiding commitment to the rights and security of the state of Israel, we hope that with its responsibilities under the Fundamental Agreement, the government of Israel will take quick action to relaunch the negotiations with the Holy See. Resolving these matters is vital to the role of the Catholic Church as well as other Christian communities in the Holy Land. A just resolution is also critical to interreligious relations in the wider region and the world. We trust you will take our request to the highest levels of the government of Israel.
I wish you and the people of Israel many blessings and hope that this year will usher in a lasting and just peace.
Most Reverend William S. Skylstad
Bishop of Spokane